The Lasker Foundation announced today (September 24) the recipients of their 2021 awards, which are often called “America’s Nobels.”

The 2021 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award went to Dieter Oesterhelt (Emeritus, Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry), Peter Hegemann (Humboldt University of Berlin), and Karl Deisseroth (Stanford University) for their work on light-sensitive proteins known as opsins, and adapting that discovery into the field of optogenetics, which has led to new discoveries in neuroscience.

“Progress in science to some extent depends upon risky decisions of individuals. At times the results of these decisions can only be appreciated later in one’s career,” Hegemann said in his acceptance speech. “Together, we shared both the patience and the joy that comes from working in wild unexplored territories in order to bring discoveries about tiny proteins found in bacteria and algae to unexpected applications.”

The 2021 Lasker~Debakey Clinical Medical Research Award was awarded to Drew Weissman (University of Pennsylvania) and Katalin Karikó (BioNTech) for their pioneering work on mRNA vaccines. In a 2005 paper, they reported finding a way to slightly modify mRNA sequences so that they’d be taken up by cells and used as instructions for protein production, instead of immediately being destroyed. This technology has been at the root of some of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been administered to hundreds of millions of people around the globe. 

“As a physician-scientist, you hope your work will someday have a positive impact on real people, and it was beyond exciting to see that happen,” Weissman says in a Penn Medicine news release. “But now, I’m most excited to be teaming up with colleagues to explore all that mRNA vaccines can do.”

“So many enigmatic things about RNA I find very, very exciting,” says Karikó, who is also senior vice president at BioNTech, in the same release. “And I am so glad that it eventually helped humanity." 

The 2021 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science was awarded to David Baltimore of Caltech for a number of significant discoveries in immunology and microbiology.  He won the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work showing that retroviruses overturn the “central dogma” of biology by converting their RNA-based genomes into DNA. According to a Caltech news release, Baltimore also helped discover RAG proteins, which help B and T cells develop a diverse repertoire of responses specific to potential antigens, and also helped discover how the transcription factor NF-κB drives inflammation. 

The Lasker Foundation was established in 1942 by Albert and Mary Lasker to support medical research. The winners in each award category share a $250,000 honorarium. The awards were presented in an online ceremony this year due to the pandemic.